Renaissance France's State

Updated on February 7, 2018
In many ways, France wasn't much changed from the middle ages in the way it was governed and the way it existed, although there were some crucial changes.
In many ways, France wasn't much changed from the middle ages in the way it was governed and the way it existed, although there were some crucial changes.

It doesn't take much looking at the above image to see that France in the Renaissance was a very different place than today. It was a heterogeneous collection of various feudal denominations, ruled over by a king. Smaller than later France would be, but even more different in regards to the institutions and structures which composed it. The ancien regime in France was the product of centuries of customs, overlaps between power, provincialism, and the conflict between interest groups which produced a structure which was opaque even to the eyes of the time, much less to today.

This article is supposed to deal with the French state and how it looked close to the end of the 16th century. It would be most accurate to the reign of Henry IV (King of France from 1589 to 1610), although some of the elements had appeared later, and certain elements would last afterwards.

Battle of Ivry, here with a painting depicting Henri IV
Battle of Ivry, here with a painting depicting Henri IV


The goal of the state in the Renaissance was war. The Early Modern Era lies as a period between the modern standing army and the Medieval feudal levies. At the end of the 16th century, the French standing army was around 20,000 infantry and 9,00 cavalry, which were in the compagnies d'ordonnance. Each governor of a major province had a company, with these governors, the king's representatives choosing fortress commanders, royal lieutenants, and company officers. Mercenaries were used to supplement this. There were also feudal levies, and towns had civil guards, and gendarmes for acting as essentially a police force and to deal with problems between the population and the army (who did not get along.) It made for a relatively small army, considering the size and the population of France.

A good example of the fragmented nature of the French tax system, the map of the gabelle, the salt tax. Notice how many exemptions and differing tax levels there were.
A good example of the fragmented nature of the French tax system, the map of the gabelle, the salt tax. Notice how many exemptions and differing tax levels there were.


An army requires money. The French had armies, but they rarely had enough money to provide for them. Taxation was a complex matter in France. There were three main taxes, dating from the 1360s : hearth taxes, sales taxes, and the salt tax. The heart tax was initially a fouage and then the taille, which were gathered in élection districts, overseen by élus (also judges of first instance), elected and then appointed officials. These were equivalent to the religious lines, so a bishopric was an élection and a parish where local collection happened. Later on non-ecclesiastical borders were set up, and the number grew, from 78 to 143 between 1520 and 1620. Elus grew even more so, from 120 to 1,200. Almost all money for this came from peasants, as nobles and urban dwellers had exceptions, although in the south noble land, rather than noble status, had tax exemption. The taille produced some 1/2 to 2/3 of the king's revenue.

Salt taxes, the hated gabelle, were much more complicated. There was a royal monopoly on the sale of salt in most regions, except ion salt-producing areas like Brittany, the Southwest, or the Cotentin peninsula, who were exempt from or paid reduced amounts of the taxes. In Northern France, there were salt-warehouses, and each family was required to purchase at least a certified minimum amount of salt. In the south, taxes were levied on salt as it left its production region. There was common smuggling between the areas, which was countered by a large internal police force.

The sales tax meanwhile, only concerned a relatively small number of goods, mostly a tax on wine retail sales. A fee was charged on goods moving from provinces or regions to each other by the state, and there were also tariffs on exports and imports. Only northern French regions had the sales taxes, and Britanny, Burgundy, Dauphine, Guyenne, Languedoc, and Provence, and all territory after 1550 had special sales and salt taxes. At the borders of regions represented at the 1360 estates general, tariffs were charged, and later taxes were charged for additional provinces further afield. Transit taxes levied by towns and feudal lords only completed this rather dismal state.

Although this system was complex, it did have certain advantages in leveling out taxes per province. Burgundy produced large amounts of wine and paid a high salt tax but not a wine tax, while Brittany paid a high wine tax but not a salt tax. It made collecting the revenue from regions easier for royal tax collectors than a single uniform tax. The right to collect indirect taxes was leased to tax farms, which also made a fair deal of sense by providing stability for the kingdom's revenues.

Most financiers came from mercantile groups, as opposed to being from nobles like in the military or the judicial branch. However, they didn't engage in trade as they were banned from doing the two simultaneously. But if a monopoly was granted for trade to a region, it went to the king's financial supporters, thus making French mercantilism into a fiscal policy. Money from all of this taxation went to the Central Treasury (Epargne), with only revenue from sale of offices not being collected there.

A French parlement in a lit de justice - a royal sitting of parlement - in 1715, held by Louis XV.
A French parlement in a lit de justice - a royal sitting of parlement - in 1715, held by Louis XV.


The judicial branch of the state was, perhaps even more so than today, a vital part of government for early modern France. When the government's principal duties were maintaining internal order and fighting wars, judicial elements loom large as part of the powers of government. in France, judicial functions were discharged by many offices, but the highest one were the Parlements. Parlements were combined judicial-legislative-executive branches (combining them all together in a strange mixture, but they were principally judicial branches), and in the time of King Henry IV there were the parlements of Paris, Toulouse, Grenoble, Bordeaux, Dijon, Rouen, Aix-en-Provence, and Rennes. Later ones included Pau, Metz, Douai, Besançon, Nancy, Colmar, Bastia, Arras, Dombes, and Perpignan. Above these was the king, who believed himself absolute, although they were bound by God's law since they ruled by divine right. In practice too, local courts often modified the will of the king or acted independently.

Of course, the Parlements alone did not execute all the justice in the Kingdom of France. There were also feudal nobles in the countryside who had feudal rights, even to the level of death penalty - there were still thousands in 1789. But royal courts, mostly local Parlements, heart on appeal automatically all such death sentences. Therefor it was only the actual courts of the king which could order and then carry out an execution. Still, these lower level courts existed, and seigneurial courts served many of lower clientele, while feudal lords were responsible for policing markets, judging land disputes, acting as courts of first (and sometimes second) instance, setting weighs and measures, throughout the countryside.

There were roughly three total levels of justice throughout the kingdom : the bailiwick (north) and seneschalsy (south, presidial, and Parlement. These existed alongside and on top of seigneurial courts, like how in the US there are both state and federal courts. Certain towns had royal provosts, most towns had merchant courts, and the Catholic Church had its own courts, which involved religious, moral (and concerning Church property and personnel), earthly matters, and religious courts might be passed to Parlements themselves. There were also separate royal courts, like financial courts, constabulary, Eaux et Forêts (waters and woods), admiralty courts, and special juridictions. The authority and oversight of many of these courts overlapped. There were even informal courts, like those held by guilds, whose punishments could be just as effective as any real court's. Semi-independent i, like Burgundy, Brittany, Flanders, had their own court systems, and disputed the jurisdiction of the Parlement of Paris and thus even King over them.

At all levels, there was a great, inherent problem of the ancien régime's twin upholding of property and custom. Private property was an important - even sacred actually, since it was one of the three sacred obligations of the King in his contract with god, from which he derived legitimacy for his reign - part of French society. But at the same time, customary law and privileges entered into any occasion. An excellent example of this is related to village common lands. Although after this era strictly, Louis XIV tried to regulate common lands in 1677 and 1699. This failed because even though there might be private owners of land, they had "feudal" duties and there were customs which had long existed concerning using this land for common usage. The two were incompatible, and French courts sided with the defense of existing privileges and customs over private property rights. This mean that while courts were an effective institution at opposing overreach on the behalf of the central government and its "absolutism", they didn't establish the strong system of rule of law and private property rights which exists in today's society.

Henri IV, who established the paulette which ensured the heredity of offices.
Henri IV, who established the paulette which ensured the heredity of offices.


A strange feature to the idea of modern bureaucratic government is how offices were filled in France (and much of Europe) during the time. officers were not per se filled : instead they were bought. People did not work in an office, they owned an office. Administration, military, judicial, officers in all of these were up for sale, and generally hereditary. Their costs of course, varied tremendously. For lowly justices it might be 5 to 10,000 livres, but for parlementaires in the parlements, it could be 100,000 to 150,000 : the latter bestowed nobility. Most office holders were nobles. An innovation towards the end of this period, in 1604, was the installation of the paulette, which was a tax, worth 1/60 of the value of the office per year, in exchange for the payment of which officers would ensure the automatic heredity of their officers in the case of their death : otherwise offices had to be transmitted and then the officer survive by 40 days its transmission, or it would default to the state at their death. While this further reinforced offices as hereditary, it generated large revenues for the state.


James B. Collins. The State in Early Modern France. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Rosemary L. Hopcroft, "Maintaining the Balance of Power: Taxation and Democracy in England and France, 1340-1688." Sociological Perspectives 42 no.1 (Spring 1999) 69-99.

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    © 2018 Ryan Thomas


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        Louise Powles 2 months ago from Norfolk, England

        Thankyou, that was really interesting to read. I love history.